HAVING gone cold turkey on the game since retiring from the Perth Wildcats an NBL legend, Ricky Grace was returning to basketball in 2020 as an assistant coach to the Mandurah Magic with the added bonus of having his son play with the team too.
The career that Grace produced after arriving at the Perth Wildcats in 1990 is the stuff of legend. So much so that he’s considered the greatest Wildcat of all-time and one of the best NBL players to ever grace the court.
He even became an Olympian representing Australia and has since been inducted in the Basketball Australia Hall of Fame while named to the NBL’s 25th Anniversary Team in 2003 and had his No. 15 jersey retired by the ‘Cats.
Along the way, Grace played a still record 482 games for the Wildcats winning six club MVP awards, playing in the championships of 1990, 1991, 1995 and 2000 while being named Grand Final MVP in a losing cause in 1993 and as a winner in 1990, and to the All-NBL First Team on four occasions.
Factor in his college career at the University of Oklahoma and his flirtation with the NBA and it’s hard to imagine a basketball career more fulfilled than that of Grace. But at 38 once he retired from the NBL and the Wildcats at the conclusion of the 2004/05 season, he was done with the game.
He has had no official involvement in the game of basketball since, instead focusing his passion towards a program now called Ricky Grace Girls Academy which helps to provide education and lifestyle support largely through basketball programs to mainly Indigenous girls now across Australia.
That has taken up his time and passion since his basketball career, but his desire to get back involved in basketball was reignited last year, then his son Jerami returned from college to play with the Mandurah Magic in the SBL and was set to return in 2020.
His former Wildcats teammate Aaron Trahair reached out to Grace as the head coach of the Magic, the pair came to an agreement for the ‘Amazing One’ to become an assistant coach and excitement was building nicely for what was to come in 2020.
Grace was excited to be back involved in basketball and to be coaching his son and working alongside his former NBL teammate, but then COVID-19 struck and everything was put on hold.
“I quit basketball cold turkey. I was 38 and now I’m going on 54 and sometimes I still wake up thinking I’ve got a game because it’s that deeply entrenched somewhere in my psyche,” Grace said on Hoops Heaven’s Basketball Hustle with Chris Pike and Shawn Redhage.
“But when I finished at the Wildcats, I quit cold turkey so I was looking forward to getting back into it. My son Jerami finished four years over in America at college and he was coming back to play with the Mandurah Magic, and I was joining forces with Aaron Trahair down there as an assistant coach.
“It was disappointing when all this happened because I was looking forward to getting back involved in basketball because it’s something I love and have missed.”
While Grace’s official return to basketball has been delayed, he remains committed to his assistant coach role with the Magic whether it’s sometime in 2020 still in some capacity or even if it has to be put off until 2021.
The fact that across the league he was going to be bumping into the likes of Mark Worthington, Stephen Black and Mike Ellis as coaches, or Shawn Redhage, Cody Ellis and Greg Hire as players certainly had his excitement high not only for the SBL but basketball in WA as a whole.
“I still will come across all those people whether it’s this year in some form or next year so I’m still excited about it,” Grace said.
“We’ve hit a big pause button but I’m looking forward to getting back involved and knowing all the names involved in the league, I’m looking forward to bumping into those guys on a week to week basis.
“Maybe all of us can somehow get together or work together for the betterment of basketball in WA and the SBL. I’m looking forward to not only looking forward to the Mandurah SBL team but also with the development of their underage teams and getting right involved in the grassroots.
“I think if all of us names with a history in basketball can work together then that includes some of the best minds in WA basketball so there’s a lot of improvement there that we can make if we put our minds together.
“We can all benefit together but also help the game of basketball in Western Australia so that’s our goal. You look at the development of the game of basketball here in WA compared to Victoria, NSW and other states, we should make sure we get involved in our basketball clubs to the grassroots and just see what we can do to support basketball at a deeper level.
“If we all come together for the betterment of the game with the local clubs, I just think there’s something there where we can all work together.”
Grace was obviously also looking forward to the chance to spend more time with his 25-year-old son Jerami and to work closely with him in a basketball sense.
Coming off his college career which finished at Oklahoma’s Langston University, Jerami showed exciting signs in the SBL at the Magic in his seven appearances, averaging 14.6 points, 3.7 assists and 3.4 rebounds.
That included a best of 20 points and nine assists against the playoff bound Goldfields Giants while playing on a team out of the finals race late in the campaign and that would win just the six games.
But he was committed to return to Mandurah this season in the SBL season on the back of being entrenched at the Adelaide 36ers this past NBL campaign as a training player.
Grace finds himself as a father excited for what lies ahead for his son and can’t wait to help him get the best out of himself.
“I’m excited for him more than anything and I’m proud of him for what he’s been able to achieve. It’s disappointing that this has all happened for him because he was coming off a great six months with Joey in Adelaide and he was fit and firing to go,” Grace said.
“He’s lost a bit of that momentum now but hopefully while he’s back there in the States he’s doing what he has to do so he can hit the ground running again. I’m excited for him with the opportunities that he has in front of him. He’ll back here to play if there’s some sort of action.
“He was just about to fly out when this whole thing blew up so he was going to be here about a week or two before the season started. But once we started talking about the shutdown, we figured it would be better to chill there for him with family and friends rather than come out here. I didn’t want to have to deal with him every day.”
It would only be natural for Grace to want to see his son go on to play for the Wildcats should the opportunity arise, but even if it was at a rival like the 36ers he would be happy for whatever eventuated.
But in the bigger picture, the bond they have as father and son, and pride he’ll take in him as his son is above anything that happens on a basketball court.
“Of course it’s a dream to see him play with the Wildcats, I’m not going to lie. But I have bigger dreams for him just to be a positive citizen and a good, young man,” he said.
“But if I saw him put a Wildcats uniform on or if in the back of mind said I didn’t hope that’d happen, I’d be lying. That’s not going to make or break how proud I am or not though. I will be proud of him whether that happens or not, that would just be a nice bonus.”
Now as for Grace’s other great passion in life that has kept him without the feeling of missing basketball for the last 16 years, he takes great pride in what he’s helped build with the now Ricky Grace Girls Academy.
It started out with Grace seeing what the boys program at Clontarf College was capable of accomplishing by using sport as a vehicle to help the youth both in the metro and regional and remote areas to get involved in education programs to get ahead in life.
Grace took that upon himself to create something similar for girls and even he sometimes is still amazed at the success the program has had stretching across Western Australia, and now Australia.
“Even when I was still playing I used to do a lot of work in the Aboriginal community. I didn’t talk much about it, but at the end of every season I’d give two weeks of my time and I called it my mission work,” Grace said.
“I’d go out to the Northern Territory in Hermannsburg and up through Uluru. I really enjoyed the work and I felt the connection with the Aboriginal people and instantly I could see parts of their culture that they allowed me to see which a lot of people aren’t privileged to.
“I just felt an instant connection with the culture and continued to do that, and then when I retired I was approached by some elders here in Perth about starting a program for Aboriginal girls because of the lack of support they were getting.
“I thought I’d use my profile for good and I’ve been lobbying for support for Aboriginal girls ever since. They remind me of a younger me in a lot of ways where they just need an opportunity and they will succeed.
“For the last 16 years I’ve been lobbying for support for Aboriginal girls so they can get the same support the boys are getting.
“We are doing a really good job with that. We have 3000 girls in the program now across 43 schools in Australia, we have 150 staff and 75 per cent of them are Aboriginal women from those communities.
“That means about 70 per cent of our funds go towards the Aboriginal women directly in those communities so I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to help achieve along with the 149 other people in the foundation.”
The inequity he saw in the programs available for boys and not girls never sat right with Grace, and that ignited a passion inside him that has kept him so occupied for the last 16 years that he’s never missed basketball.
But it was unlikely the pull to return to an involvement to the hardwood wouldn’t come one day, and now Grace would love nothing more than to combine both his great passions for the foreseeable future.
“For me I need to be passionate about something and for me it was basketball up until I was 38 and I retired from the NBL. Then when I started this program for Aboriginal girls and I saw the impact that it was having, and I saw the inequity of the system, that’s where my passion went,” Grace said.
“I’m raised by a single mum, I’ve got three daughters and I was looking at a school that was supporting a program for boys but had nothing for girls. In America, they have Prop 48, Title 9 where if you fund one sex, you have to fund the other and this is something that I’ve been passionate for the last 16 years of my life.
“I’m after equal rights and educations for the girls and this program helped make that transition easy for me away from basketball. That’s why I could quit basketball cold turkey because I was just as passionate about this work, and disciplined about it, as I was playing with the Wildcats.
“I went through a bit personally last year as well where I felt my character was questioned, and that’s when I felt a bit lonely and said that I miss basketball.
“That’s when I said I wanted to get back into it because I had put that part of my life on hold for so long, but I felt that the time was right and now I’m looking forward to embracing both my passions at the same time.
“And as long as I have something to be passionate about and can focus on, then I feel like I’m a good place in my life.”